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Finally, then, it was Bill Rogers over the white cliffs of Dover, up there where his nerve ends send him occasionally when he's on a golf course, which is why he has a variety of nicknames: Buck Rogers, for example; Slam Dunk; Nerve Ends; Panther. But none of these conveys the way Rogers put the British Open to sleep last weekend on the moonscape known as Sandwich down in the elegant county of Kent. In the end, all Rogers did to collect his first major championship, by four strokes, was be steadier than a relatively obscure West German by the name of Bernhard Langer.
The relentlessly methodical manner in which Rogers hit the fairways and greens of Royal St. George's during the final three rounds—especially the last two, on Saturday and Sunday when for a time it had looked as if it might become an exciting tournament, involving the celebrated likes of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson—was a better soporific than counting Kentish sheep. But that is what can happen when one golfer strikes his shots so much more accurately than anyone else. And Bill Rogers is, above all, a straight hitter.
Rogers, in fact, pretty much saved this British Open from being a mild disaster for America's professionals. Watson, the defending champion and three-time winner, drove from the tees like a deranged person and slowly took himself out of things. Jack Nicklaus wound up tied with Watson and Arnold Palmer in 23rd place, his worst finish in 19 years, after beginning the tournament with a horrendous 83—his worst single round ever in one of golf's Big Four events. It may well be that the Open at Sandwich will be remembered as much for Nicklaus' 83 as for Rogers' victory.
For two days Crenshaw looked like a serious contender. He was only one shot back of Rogers, a good friend, after 36 holes, but he soared to a 76 on Saturday and finished tied for eighth. And then there was Lee Trevino, a two-time champion. He opened with a sorrowful 77 and never did recover.
British Open weather, which often has drastic effects, was a factor only on opening day, Thursday, when wind and rain lashed the course. At the end of the round the lead was shared, at par 70, by Nick Job, a Brit with a nice wit, and Argentina's Vicente Fernandez, who would ultimately miss the final cut. But the really big news of the round came from the other end of the scoring spectrum. People couldn't at first believe that Nicklaus had actually committed an 83.
At midnight on Wednesday, Nicklaus had casually called Columbus, Ohio for a routine report from home and learned that his second-oldest son, Steve, who hopes to catch footballs for Florida State this fall, had been in a car wreck, totaling a Buick station wagon on, of all roads, Jack Nicklaus Boulevard, but had walked away with only a scratched knee. Steve at first was charged with "operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated." Steve told his father he'd had only two beers and simply fell asleep at the wheel at 2:30 a.m. after taking a young lady home. (Police later admitted that the drunk-driving charge had been an error.)
"I believe him," said Nicklaus, who then went out and shot his 83. Henry Cotton had shot a historic 65 in the 1934 British Open at Royal St. George's, a round that inspired the manufacturing of the Dunlop 65 golf ball, so many jokes followed. Nicklaus was told he would be responsible for a Dunlop 83 ball. When he was showered with applause on the 1st tee before the start of his second round, he said, "They were clapping because I dared to show up."
It was also said Steve had sent his father a wire after learning of Jack's 83: "Come home, Dad, all is forgiven."
Rogers took the lead with a 66 on Friday, a round that honestly didn't seem all that spectacular, because 22 players broke par, including Nicklaus. His response to the 83 was a 66 of his own. Crenshaw had a 67 and looked very much in the mood to win a major at last. Someone named Gordon Brand from Baildon even shot a course-record 65 by making one of the three holes in one that were to be accomplished at Sandwich's 16th hole. First-day co-leader Job shot a 69 and found himself tied with Crenshaw in second place, at 139 to Rogers' 138.
At this point, Job cautioned everyone not to worry about the possibility of his winning. "I'm 400 to 1," he said, adding that if he did win, somehow, he would be bigger than "The Wedding." He spoke of trying to calm himself with pills and pot, but nothing worked. He said he had read one of those positive-thinking books, and then found out the author had committed suicide. "Somewhere along the way," he said, "I rather expect the earth will open up and swallow me."